COVID-19 testing is a key strategy for reducing the spread of the virus in our community.
Public Health – Seattle & King County is now recommending that anyone who has COVID-19 symptoms or close contact with someone who has COVID-19 be tested right away. Testing as soon as possible after symptoms appear is important to prevent COVID-19 from spreading to family, friends, and the community.
Previously, due to supply shortages, Washington state prioritized testing for people most at risk for severe illness, healthcare providers and first responders. Now, Washington State Department of Health has expanded the criteria for who should be tested, and supplies of testing kits and personal protective equipment are increasing.
To get answers to some common questions about testing in King County, we talked with Dr. Puneet Dewan who is coordinating the COVID-19 testing efforts for Public Health.
Who should get tested for COVID-19?
Anyone who is experiencing even mild COVID-like symptoms should isolate themselves away from others and call their healthcare provider. Getting tested as soon as possible is important to help stop the spread of COVID-19. The most concerning symptoms are cough or shortness of breath. But if you have two or more of the following symptoms, you should also call to be evaluated for a test:
- Fever, chills, repeated shaking with chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat, loss of taste or smell
It is important to isolate yourself as soon as you develop symptoms, even before you are tested, because if you have COVID-19, you are already contagious.
If you have been exposed to someone with COVID-19, it’s important to take action quickly and follow the instructions on the “What to do” factsheet. People who live in the same household or are in close contact with anyone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 should also be tested, even if they don’t have symptoms.
How do I get a test for COVID-19?
Most testing is completed through healthcare providers. You should call your healthcare provider if you feel sick, live in the same household as someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, or have been in close contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19. Each healthcare system has its own testing processes. Many providers require appointments to prevent overcrowding and to be sure that they have supplies.
What if I don’t have a healthcare provider or if my provider doesn’t have testing available?
If you need to be tested and don’t have a provider who can do the test, please don’t delay. Call the King County COVID-19 call center, which is open 7 days a week 8 AM – 7 PM, at 206-477-3977.
Additional testing sites are becoming available for people who do not have access. Currently this includes:
- Four Community Health Center networks are testing people who do not otherwise have access: HealthPoint, International Community Health Centers (ICHS), Neighborcare Health, and SeaMar Community Health Centers. Please call them to make an appointment. (More detail in this printable PDF)
- UW Medicine is operating a temporary mobile testing site in southeast Seattle and will open another site in South King County soon.
- Kroger Co., the City of Seattle, and Seattle Mariners are operating a temporary testing site at T-Mobile Park on May 13-14. Registration is required online or at 888-852-2567.
If you don’t have a healthcare provider or insurance, it’s good to get connected before you get sick. You can call Public Health’s access line (1-800-756-5437) for help, or learn more online at Washington Healthplanfinder. You may qualify for free or reduced cost health coverage. Enrollment is open any time if you lose your job or experience other major life events.
What is it like to get a test?
A healthcare provider will either give you instructions on how to insert a swab into your nose or throat, or they will do it themselves. Then the swab will be sent to a lab for testing. Public Health created an infographic that shows all the steps to getting a test.
How will I know my test results?
If you test positive for COVID-19, you should receive notification from your healthcare provider (or whoever took the test) as soon as the result is available. While you are waiting for results, you should isolate yourself from others, even if you do not have any symptoms, because COVID-19 can spread before symptoms appear.
You may also receive a call from Public Health or the Washington Department of Health. The caller will ask about how you may have been exposed to the virus and who you have had close contact with while you were contagious. Providing this information will help keep your friends, family and coworkers safe – and they also may be contacted. It also helps us understand how the virus is spreading in our community so we can stop it more effectively.
What do I do if I have a positive test result?
A positive result means you have COVID-19 and need to take special precautions. Most importantly, please carefully follow the recommendations for how to safely isolate yourself and how to care for yourself at home until you have recovered. It can be hard to isolate or quarantine, and King County has resources to help (including the COVID-19 Call Center at 206-477-3977).
Follow the guidance given to you by your health care provider. Most people with the virus will recover with rest and care at home, but there are important signs that should prompt you to seek healthcare. These signs include difficulty breathing or chest pain. Hospitals and other healthcare settings can safely care for people with COVID-19.
What do I do if I have a negative test result but have had close contact with someone with the virus?
Sometimes the swab misses the virus, so it is possible that you could be infected with COVID-19 but have a negative test result. Even if you have a negative test result, you should follow the guidelines for someone who was exposed, quarantine yourself and monitor your symptoms.
I have heard about different kinds of tests for COVID-19. What kind of test should I get?
There are several kinds of tests that we are hearing a lot about. One is a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, and another is an antibody test. There is also a new test called an antigen test.
- PCR test: The PCR tests look for the virus itself. This is what is described earlier in the infographic linked to above. It’s the type of test you want for diagnosing a current COVID-19 infection. This test is done by taking a swab sample from the nose or throat.
- Antibody test: An antibody test, also known as a serology test, is a blood test that looks for antibodies to see whether a person was exposed to COVID-19 in the past. These are not recommended to diagnose people who are currently ill with COVID-19. Not all antibody tests that are available are reliable, and some tests produce false negative or false positive results.
- Antigen test: A third type of test has just recently been approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), called an “antigen” test. This is designed for use, eventually, by health care providers and can give a rapid result. Antigen tests can diagnose current COVID-19 infections, but they are not always reliable. Negative antigen tests are often followed by a PCR test to be sure of the result. We expect to learn more about this type of test in coming weeks.
I keep hearing about shortages of testing supplies. Do we have a local shortage?
At this point, most providers who offer COVID-19 testing should be able to provide a test to anyone who has COVID-19 symptoms or has been in close contact with someone who has tested positive. There have been shortages in testing supplies and personal protective equipment, including in long-term care facilities. But the availability is increasing, through the combined efforts of private healthcare providers and King County and Washington state agencies.
It’s important to note that there are three important parts to testing. First, testing kits (including swabs and the liquid to transport the swab to a lab). Second, healthcare workers need personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, gowns and eye protection to protect themselves. And third, the labs that run the test need to have capacity run all the tests. Labs serving King County have expanded capacity to process approximately 20,000 tests a day. Currently, this is enough capacity to serve our county.
It’s important to call ahead to your provider, to make sure the test is available and to schedule and plan your visit. You may not be able to get a test right away if there is a temporary supply shortage affecting your provider. Please call our COVID-19 Call Center (at 206-477-3977) to help find other options.
Why is it important to test for COVID-19?
It is important to quickly diagnose COVID-19 so that if you are infected, you can protect your family, friends and community by keeping yourself isolated from others. Isolation is crucial to slow the spread of the virus in our community. People who are exposed to someone with COVID-19 also should stay away from others because they could develop COVID-19 in the next 14 days – staying away from others even though you are not sick yourself is called quarantine. This is important even if you are not ill because COVID-19 can spread from people who are not ill before symptoms develop.
It is important to remember that the most important ways to prevent COVID-19 are:
- staying home and avoiding non-essential contact with others
- keeping six feet away from other people when you do need to go out in public
- good hand washing and avoiding touching your face
Wearing a cloth mask when in public is also recommended to prevent spread of COVID-19 from people who may be infected but who have not yet developed symptoms.
- Public Health’s “Symptoms, testing and care” resources
- What to do if you have confirmed or suspected COVID-19 factsheet (WA-DOH)
- Healthcare providers: Guidelines for testing
- Community Health Center Testing Locations 5-25-20 (printable PDF)
Originally published on 5-12-2020